Five things we learned: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22

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Notre Dame walked into Memorial Stadium saying they weren’t worried about Hurricane Joaquin. But they sure should have been more worried about the Clemson Tigers.

The Irish may have lost when DeShone Kizer’s version of student-body right failed to convert a two-point conversion that would’ve forced overtime. But Notre Dame was beat in the game’s opening minutes, knocked woozy by two quick Clemson scores and a shocking lack of poise by all phases of the game.

In more than difficult conditions, the Irish struggled on offense, defense, and special teams, each digging a hole that turned out to be insurmountable. While the Irish never stopped fighting, Kizer’s failed two-point attempt was a fitting finish to an evening not soon forgotten in upstate South Carolina.

The Irish had their shot to steal back this victory. But instead, it was another devastating road loss that breaks an unbeaten season. With monsoon-like rains falling and the Death Valley crowd rocking, the Tigers suffocated the Irish for three quarters, but had to hold on for dear life as the Irish mounted a furious comeback, made even more miraculous considering the mistakes Notre Dame made.

As the Irish try to find a way home to South Bend amidst a tropical storm, Notre Dame leaves as a 4-1 team, battered and bruised. While they should be proud of the fight they put up at the end, they’ll likely spend the next few days wondering how a veteran and confident team failed to answer the opening bell.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson.

 

Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out after a completely horrific start. 

You can draw up the perfect start to a football game. Or you can take that game-plan, rip it to pieces, douse it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Unfortunately, Notre Dame chose Option B on Saturday night.

For the first four games of the season, the Irish have gotten off to fast starts and followed a winning script. They’ve outscored opponents 47-6, giving up just one score, a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter against UMass.

But Saturday evening, the Irish dug themselves a deep hole from the start. They gave up a nice kickoff return to open the game. Deshaun Watson caught the Irish defense out of alignment on a run that went for 38 yards. A Cole Luke missed tackle allowed the Tigers to convert a 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. Three plays later, Clemson was winning 7-0.

Offensively, the Irish started miserably. Two predictable runs went backwards, the front five blown off the line en route to a three-and-out. A shanked punt by Tyler Newsome set up the Tigers on a short field and four plays later Clemson had a 14-point lead.

Brian Kelly said multiple times that his team needed to start quickly, not giving the Death Valley crowd any reason to make things even more difficult for the Irish. Well Notre Dame did the opposite and those early 14 points sure proved critical considering the Tigers only scored 10 more the rest of the night.

 

 

The Irish tried to put the game on the backs of their offensive line. It didn’t work. 

For the first four games of the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was the engine that powered the Irish attack. With Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston out of the starting lineup, the Irish offense didn’t miss a beat, with Harry Hiestand’s gang creating huge running lanes for C.J. Prosise and plenty of time to throw for DeShone Kizer.

But it didn’t take long to see that things were very different on Saturday evening, with Clemson turning the Irish one-dimensional as an offense and completely shutting down the ground game. Prosise was held to just three rushing yards in the first half. The rebuilt Clemson front-four was swarming, collecting nine TFLs against the Irish, with defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combining for a ridiculous seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

While the Irish offense rallied, mostly via the pass and checking down to underneath crossing routes, Notre Dame just couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage. And after the game, when head coach Brian Kelly discussed the controversial two-point play call, he said there were both run and pass options in the call.

Kizer thought he had numbers in his favor up front, and he counted on his offensive line to get a push and help him bring the game into overtime. Instead the Tigers shut down another run and Notre Dame’s comeback was finished.

 

Notre Dame’s wide receivers came into the game talking a big game. They left it with some questions to answer. 

Clemson’s team made a mountain from a molehill this week, turning tweets by Chris Brown and Will Fuller into a rallying cry. So whether or not you understand what’s so inflammatory about tweeting #savage, it was up to Brown and Fuller—not to mention the entire receiving corps—to back up their words.

They didn’t.

On one of the wettest nights you’ll ever see a game played, only one team was plagued by the drops. Will Fuller let a huge gain slide through his hands, a critical first-half drop. Torii Hunter Jr., too.

Corey Robinson could’ve reeled in a game-changing touchdown catch late in the first half, but he dropped it when he hit the ground. And after causing DeShone Kizer to waste a much-needed second half timeout when he wasn’t on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, Robinson could bring in Kizer’s high throw, either. Another pass, just sliding through an Irish receivers’ hands.

Brown broke loose for 83 yards, the most for any receiver in the game. But the South Carolina native fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter, jarred loose by safety Jayron Kearse (who also took offense to the tweets) with a little more than two minutes to play. While the Irish managed to get the ball back and score to have a chance to send the game to overtime, that’s the second time Brown has gotten to the shadow of the goal line and coughed it up, matching his back-breaking fumble against Northwestern last season.

Fuller’s absence was probably the most disappointing. Spending a lot of the evening going against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Fuller only managed to catch two passes for 37 yards, his 23-yard big play coming on a screen pass. Alexander talked a big game this week and backed it up on the field.

 

The conditions were terrible. But big-time players make big plays in big games. And the Irish receiving corps just couldn’t do it.

 

 

After a terrible start, Notre Dame’s defense held its ground… and made enough big plays to keep the Irish in the game. 

Lost in the disappointment of the evening was a solid performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense. No, you can’t throw away the first two series of the game. But after settling in against the Tigers impressive array of skill talent, Notre Dame’s defense did everything it could to will the team back into the game, nearly pulling off the comeback.

Deshaun Watson was held to under 100 passing yards, completing just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers ground game didn’t have a 100 yard rusher. The entire offense was limited to just 296 yards.

And after Notre Dame exited halftime and turning over the football on their first touch of the half and then followed it up by doing it again on their first play from scrimmage, it’s a credit to this defense that the Irish weren’t buried by the middle of the third quarter.

Notre Dame forced six three-and-outs tonight when Clemson only forced two. And while I wondered aloud on Twitter when the last time a VanGorder defense came up with a big, game-changing play, Cole Luke pulled in an interception in the end zone, essentially triggering Notre Dame’s rally.

Junior safety Max Redfield led the Irish with 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. Jaylon Smith was productive while Isaac Rochell (seven stops) and Sheldon Day (two more TFLs) were disruptive in the trenches.

While there were missed opportunities and some breakdowns that’ll likely haunt this team, it’s tough to pin this loss on the defense.

 

There’s no such thing as a moral victory for this team. So we’ll see if the veteran leadership on this roster can stop this loss from being a season-ruiner. 

That the Irish even had a chance to pull even in the game’s final seconds is rather amazing. If you look at the root causes for losing in college football, Notre Dame’s game was littered with them.

Four turnovers, all but cementing Notre Dame’s fate. A dreadfully slow start. A run game that was stuck in neutral and a receiving corps that dropped a half-dozen easy catches.

So while the Irish managed to storm back and have a shot at victory in the end, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to take any type of glass-half-full approach in the immediate aftermath.

“We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said.

But that’s not to say the season is lost.

Last year, Notre Dame went down to Tallahassee and nearly pulled off a season-defining victory. Instead, a controversial pass interference call turned a comeback win into a gutting loss. And the Irish never recovered.

Notre Dame absolutely can’t let a loss to Clemson derail their season. And after an offseason spent hammering leadership, resilience and and fortifying the attitude of his roster, it’ll be up to Kelly and his five captains to make sure this loss doesn’t sink the season.

Navy arrives in South Bend undefeated next weekend, coming off an impressive 22-point win over Air Force. A week later, USC arrives, with memories of an Irish curb-stomping in the Coliseum still fresh in their minds last November.

The Irish have managed to fight through six season-ending injuries. After doing just as much to beat themselves Saturday night as Clemson did, it’s up to the veteran leadership of this team to make sure they’re able to rally the troops and get this season back on track.

There is still so much football to be played. And with a Top 25 that looks as jumbled as ever, all the Irish can control is their own fate.

So save the oxygen, it’s not time to debate whether or not a one-loss Notre Dame team will make the playoff. It’s time for this team to prove they can dust themselves off and get back to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.

 

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.